Created on Tuesday, 08 May 2012 14:42
Dr. Jammie Price, a tenured professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, was recently placed on administrative leave. Her keys to offices and classrooms were taken away in March, and she is prohibited from talking to colleagues and students—a punishment normally reserved for someone who might threaten her fellow teachers and students with immediate harm.
What did Dr. Price do to deserve such humiliation? She showed her introductory sociology class a documentary film called "The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality, and Relationships," distributed by the respected Media Education Foundation.
Three students allegedly complained that the film was "inappropriate." Full disclosure: Working with Miguel Picker, I made this film, which is about mainstream pornography, that is, materials that are best selling, most rented, and free and available to anyone who clicks "I am 18 or over" on almost any one of countless Internet porn sites.
Beyond my outrage at the Appalachian State administration's violation of academic freedom as well as fostering a distrustful relationship between Dr. Price and her students, I am again reminded how hypocritical this culture is.
According to research I have pursued with a team of international scholars—a global survey on pornography use in the U.S., Asia, and Europe—the average male college student in the U.S. (based on 1,522 preliminary responses) reports watching pornography about 1-2 times a week specifically for the stimulus pornography purports to provide, and female college students watch about once a month for the very same reason.
Further, the average student actually has concerns about using pornography regularly and "sometimes" thinks of decreasing his or her viewing frequency.
The academic community has been concerned with the effects of pornography for over half a century. Though studies have traditionally been conducted to investigate a link between watching pornography, or violent pornography, and violent attitudes or behaviors, in recent years there has been an increase in research on the connections among pornography, sexuality, and relationships, and this is the focus of my current research.
Since the data sets are immense (7,000 heterosexual men and women from 7 countries filled out the 90-question survey), I have so far only completed analyzing the data for 1,200 Taiwanese subjects. But some of the preliminary findings are clear: both men and women who regularly watch pornography are more inclined to sexualize everyday interactions (for instance, imagining strangers naked, focusing on certain body parts when interacting with others, or fantasizing about having sex with them), and have porn-related sexual dysfunctions (such as gaining more satisfaction from watching porn than in being intimate with a real person, or needing to imagine porn images they have seen in order to maintain sexual excitement).
These preliminary results are largely consistent with the reports from sex therapists, who have reported an explosion of sexual and relationship problems related to pornography use. But the crucial issue is not only that an excessive amount of exposure to pornography interferes with sexual fulfillment and lasting relationships for some people.
More troubling are the specifics of those images and the meanings that are embedded in them (to say nothing of the conditions under which those films are made). According to the content analysis of the best-selling and best-renting porn movies for heterosexual audiences that I conducted with my team, the majority of the scenes contain both verbal and physical aggression toward women.
Almost always, if a woman exhibits any response to whatever aggression is targeted to her, it is one of pleasure. (Frequently that aggression is painful and body-punishing, and when there are no men around to do the violence, other women or the woman herself will do the job.)
In mainstream pornography, it is not only "sex," but also women's alleged "enjoyment," that defuses any suggestion of aggression against them. As the majority of the respondents in my research survey and interviews replied that they had neither adequate sex education at home nor at school, we should not be surprised that the pornography industry has become our national sex educator.
If our popular culture has become increasingly pornographic, and if the Internet is flooded with unlimited, free pornographic images, where is the safe space in which students can initiate this long-overdue conversation? Isn't the classroom supposed to be the setting in which critical thinking and learning take place?
Furthermore, pornography is an appropriate topic for Dr. Price to discuss in a sociology class, since the production, content, and consumption of pornography that fuels this multi-billion dollar industry is a sociological and cultural issue, not simply an individual or personal one.
The moment in "The Price of Pleasure" that resonates with many audiences takes place at the end, when college student Gregg reflects that he has enjoyed watching pornography when he is "in the heat of the moment." But when "that passion sinks out" and as he continues watching the film, he begins to see how the onscreen woman is in fact being treated very badly. He says, "You just kind of wonder, this is not sexy. This is not how I want to experience sex."
While it may be embarrassing or inconvenient to admit it, the fact is that many male and, increasingly, female students have routinely watched pornography since their early teens. When challenged to think critically about this, it is understandable that both porn users and non-porn users would feel uncomfortable.
But that is precisely when learning and critical thinking are supposed to take place. What is wrong with Dr. Price's engaging students to do just that, especially with a topic so prevalent and influential in the culture and the students' lives?
Chyng Sun, Ph.D.
Clinical Associate Professor of Media Studies
McGhee Division, School of Continuing and Professional Studies
New York University